It may look like something out of a sci-fi film costume closet, but a new brain scanner, affectionately known as the "Brain Bucket," is the latest in the high-tech fight against brain disorders.
Developed and implemented at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the device, officially titled the "multi-channel phased ray coil," is basically a helmet featuring a myriad of sensors and coils connected an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.
With the Brain Bucket, the MRI can generate incredibly high-resolution images of the brain up to 10 times faster than older machines -- and sometimes that can mean the difference between life and death.
"It's like we went from a cell phone camera to a 10 megapixel digital camera," Dr. Bruce Rosen, one of the Brain Bucket's creators and Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Center at MGH, told "Good Morning America."
"When you take a picture with a Brain Bucket, it can look literally like you took the brain, slice it up, and we're staring right at it before your eyes," Rosen said.
Head of Metal Coils Could Help Detect Diseases Early
The key to the new machine is its 96 metal coils, which act as separate receivers to pick up signals from different areas of the brain and translate them into a single, comprehensive image. By contrast, a traditional MRI usually uses only two to 12 coils.
"A small detector close up is more efficient, but it only captures a small part of the brain," Lawrence Wald, a biophysicist at MGH told Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review Magazine. "So you need lots of small detectors spread out over the scalp."
The resulting high-resolution image can show clear images of the brain down to the blood vessels, which allows doctors to catch and treat disorders like brain tumors, dementia and epilepsy. Many times, the abnormality is so small that a normal MRI would have missed it completely.
In a study using an early prototype and epilepsy patients, the new device caught abnormalities that previous brain scans missed in two-thirds of the patients.
Brain Bucket Could Battle Alzheimer's, Brain Cancer and Brain Bleeding
The device could also be a powerful weapon in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.
"In diseases like Alzheimer's, where there is not a basic diagnosis based on imaging, we hope that being able to look at smaller alternations in the brain would yield some additional diagnostic information and perhaps allow you to monitor medication," Wald said.
Recent studies suggest that subtle neurological changes could increase risk for the disease, but the intensive scanning needed to track such small changes was generally impractical.
But with its impressive resolution, the Brain Bucket can more easily identify and follow the changes, allowing doctors to prescribe more accurate treatments, the creators said.
Similarly, the Brain Bucket can help doctors fight brain cancer.
"The clarity of the pictures can help us see smaller legions," Rosen said. "They're easier to treat when they're small. We can also see the extent of the legion."
As far as brain bleeding, which caused the recent death of actress Natasha Richardson, the device can see "very fine bleeds and catch them early enough to treat," Rosen said.
Rosen said the Brain Bucket should be covered by insurance, and according to at least one patient, it is even comfortable.
"It's a little bit of a tighter fit than other machines, but you end up falling asleep," one patient said.